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Jun 6, 2014

Who's to replace Chris Mitchell? Rumblings over Oz editorship

The Australian's editor-in-chief has suggested there's no-one in the company to replace him. Is this news to his editor?


News Corp journalists are questioning whether The Australian editor Clive Mathieson will remain with the company after editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell suggested there was no one ready to replace him at a media and marketing conference in Sydney on Wednesday.

Many within the Oz had speculated that Mitchell would retire after the 50th anniversary celebrations in July this year, after he said as much to Crikey in 2012. But earlier this year, he told Crikey he’d be there “another two or three years at least”. This morning, he said in an email that “management has changed at News Australia since 2012 so things are better now,” adding that his plans are exactly as he told Crikey in February.

Mitchell made further off-the-cuff comments about succession at the paper on Wednesday after being asked about it by a Mumbrella reporter. He said he would retire when a successor was ready.

“I would like to have clearly defined successors who I felt were ready for it,” Mitchell said. “There is a tradition in newspapers, I don’t particularly mean in News Corp but generally, of throwing good journalists into a job that they are completely unprepared for … When I feel that it is ready, I will move on.”

Later, Mitchell added: “one of the questions when I move on is do I feel my successors are committed [to the paper’s values].”

This has been read by some to mean Mitchell does not believe Clive Mathieson is ready to take over as editor-in-chief, despite Mathieson having been editor of the paper since 2011 and having led various sections of the paper since 2002. Crikey understands Mathieson has no plans to leave the paper, but some have said Mitchell’s comments seem to indicate Mathieson is no longer viewed as a successor.

Crikey asked Mitchell this morning whether his comments indicate he does not believe Mathieson is ready for the job. He responded:

My plans for Clive and Michelle [Gunn, managing editor of The Weekend Australian] have been unchanged for years and remain unchanged. I said the paper and the digital businesses need to  be in good shape and my successors ready. Clive and Michelle agree with all that.”

Mathieson is well liked by staff and seen as the natural choice to replace Mitchell. The two work closely together and are seen as a strong team despite their radically different personalities. Any disputes between the two generally do not bubble over into the newsroom.

Mitchell has been editor-in-chief of the Australian since 2002, and after running through his no-doubt exhausting daily schedule (“6.30am in the morning to 12 at night”), said on Wednesday that the thought of retiring was “appealing”.

If it’s not Mathieson who takes over when Mitchell does eventually retire, others have suggested Peter Fray — a surprise appointment to the Oz in February — may be in the running. Fray is a former editor of the Canberra Times, Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald, and as deputy news editor, is in a relatively junior role at The Australian given his experience. Crikey understands he’s become very well liked relatively quickly, and is viewed as a safe pair of hands. However, as a Fairfax alumni, some muse he’s not enough of a right-wing campaigner to be considered for the role.

Others nominated current Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker, who held Mathieson’s current job before moving to the tabloid, as another possibility. Gunn’s name was another mentioned as a potential successor.

While none of the insiders called by Crikey believed Mitchell would be retiring anytime soon, several also said they couldn’t rule it out, describing Mitchell as ultimately inscrutable.

“I think he’ll be around forever,” one mused. “Every couple of years this story about succession heats up, but I think he enjoys it too much. The 50th anniversary would be a logical time to go, but if he doesn’t want to, there’s no pushing him.”


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